Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Dragons & Hoards

This could probably have been entitled "Fantasy Economics (p.3)" but I thought the subject deserved a catchier title. 'Cause today we're talking dragons.

While it's easy to grasp how treasure might be mined, minted, and circulated in coin form (and thus acquired by adventurers) a more pressing/nagging question for some folks is certainly 'why do monsters hoard treasure?' While ancient tombs guarded by undead Midas-types are self-explanatory (reasons why they're un-looted remain unclear), what's less obvious may be the desire by living folk...the orcs and goblins and giants and acquire chests full of the local human currency. Surely they're not a part of the local economy, right? You don't find hobgoblins drinking at the tavern or shopping for knives at the local farmer's market, do you?

[well, you could, of course. The DragonLance books have occupying soldiers (including hobgoblins and draconians) interacting with the locals, buying food and drink, harassing the barmaids, etc. But injecting this kind of symbiotic relationship with sentient humanoids into one's campaign might make the players feel more like murderers than they already do!]

The mistake here is in assuming that the monsters have no economy of their own. Okay, slimes and golems and owlbears (probably) don't...but the sentient races most certainly have something. These are tool-using societies. They build, they manufacture, they eat food, they wear textiles, they have a language for communicating with each other. And remember what coinage is: an easy, portable medium of exchange for goods and services. Coins are certainly useful and practical for ANY sentient species, both within their own community and with other least those communities that aren't as xenophobic (and murderous) as your average human town or village.

[remember that bit in Tolkien about some goblins/orcs having alliances with dwarves? Forget "racial animosity" for a moment and consider that two subterranean species are most likely to simply be fighting...when they ARE fighting...over the same prime territory/resources/food supply. Kind of like real life humans]

Dragons, however, are a different matter.

Even mind flayers have societies (though probably not one you want to visit). Dragons, on the other hand, are solitary creatures, only occasionally being found with a mate or clutch of young. And yet dragons are renowned for their treasure fact, it is the promised acquisition of vast wealth that can entice foolhardy adventurers to brave certain death in a dragon's lair.

[I mean, except for the grossly stupid 5E version of the game, with its empty-handed dragons]

But WHY do dragons have hoards filled with thousands upon thousands of coins? That is the question. Because it's a fairy tale trope? Because they collect shiny stuff like a magpie? Because they just want to deprive humans of their precious wealth?

The film Flight of Dragons (loosely based on Dickson's The Dragon and the George) suggests dragons covet gold to act as "fireproof bedding" on which to lay. I'm not buying it. Lizards and snakes suffer little discomfort sleeping on hard rock (they prefer it, in fact, as it helps warm their cold blood on a sunny day)...and, anyway, dirt is softer than metal and just as fireproof. Plus, dragon breath is extremely destructive...certainly hot enough to melt gold (in the case of red dragons). Besides, D&D dragons aren't exclusively fire-breathers and is a gold bed really going to help against acid saliva? How about electricity?

Let's start with biology.

The first thing everyone should understand is that dragons need to eat. However, they appear reptilian, which would generally means a slower metabolism. Large snakes (like boa constrictors) can go three to four weeks without eating. Crocodiles can go months (though they generally eat every other week). Komodo dragons eat only one meal per month.

So dragons probably don't need to eat all that often...which is a good thing because, being large creatures, they're going to need to consume large amounts of food when they finally tuck in. A snake will eat 15-20% of its body weight; Komodo dragons can eat as much as 80% of their body weight in a single day. Crocodiles and alligators generally eat as much as their prey supply allows (they'll just keep eating), but they can get by on 5% of their body weight every couple weeks and they're just fine. For me, I'm inclined to go the Komodo route (with long periods of sleeping/dormancy) in order to prevent the countryside from becoming too devastated.

Well, then how much does a dragon weigh? An excellent question, and one without an easy answer. Lots of editions of D&D provide numbers on length for the various dragon types, and some even give out wingspans (I think it's 2E that notes span as approximately the same as length), but there isn't any hard weight measurements...unless you go by 3E's size charts which are, frankly, preposterous. Dragons have to be able to fly, after all, and so weight in relation to wings becomes incredibly important.

Here's a good article on wing loading, applicable to both animals and aircraft. Wing load is expressed as a ratio of mass (in kg) to wing surface area (in square meters), and with regard to birds (who don't benefit from jet propulsion) the practical limit for flight is about 25:1 (some particularly ungainly gliders, like the albatross, might exceed this a bit). That is to say if the mass exceeds 25kg to the square meter of wing surface area, it ain't getting off the ground (hello kiwi!). As such, clocking a "colossal" red dragon at 12+ tons (per the 3E MM)...well, it ain't happening.

I spent the good part of the other day estimating mass based on comparable reptiles and various sizes of wings to arrive at sensible conclusions. In the end, I ended up going with ratios provided by the greatest dragon ever to grace celluloid: Vermithrax Pejorative from the film Dragonslayer. Created by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, the idea behind Vermithrax was to make the creature as frightening as possible while still making it fairly realistic and practical. The scale they decided on was a 40' length (which is more or less the scale of a D&D dragon) with a wingspan of 90' which, based on images I calculate to have a rough surface area of 107 meters square plus change. Given a scaled up Komodo for weight (something in the range of about 3 tons...Vermithrax is skinnier/tapered after all, and female to boot) gives us a wing load ratio right at the edge of the 25:1 mark...enough to get Vermithrax off the ground where she can soar on the air currents.

With these figures in mind and using the same proportions (in conjunction with the length measurements provided in the Monster Manual), I came up with the following average weights for various dragons (and, thus, the amount of food they need to consume):
  • White: 1,620# (1,296# per month)
  • Black: 2,531# (2,025# per month)
  • Green: 3,645# (2,916# per month)
  • Blue: 4,961# (3,968# per month)
  • Red: 6,480# (5,184# per month)
There are better pix of
her wings...I just like this one.
These figures are ROUGH estimates, and don't take into account the vast range that can occur between size and age categories (not to mention dragons of different the reptile kingdom males are generally 15-25% larger than females). However, it gives me an idea of what such a creature might be eating based on its natural habitat. 

[for example, a white dragon would do well with large seals or the odd polar bear, whereas a red dragon will need two or three cows, and a black dragon would be constantly eating whatever it can find in the swamp...much like a croc. Blue dragons would find it impossible to survive in a desert climate, unless eating some sort of fantasy critter (bulettes? small purple worms?) my own world, I'm more inclined to make them island dwellers and have 'em hunt pilot whale and similar aquatic mammals]

"But, JB...what does this have to do with a dragon's lust for treasure?"

Right...back to the point! This concept of dragons and their hoards are based on fairy tales, going all the way back to Fafnir, if not earlier. But fairy tales are stories and self-contained. They entertain us, perhaps impart a moral lesson, and then they're done...folks live 'happily ever after' or (like Beowulf) they don't. 

But with advanced gaming, we are engaging with the campaign world, living in it and experiencing the thing. The treasure of a dragon (for treasure they must have, it is part of what makes a dragon a dragon and part of the raison d'etre of adventurers braving their lairs) must make some sense. Certainly the size of the hoard being comparable to the dragon's age and might is takes time to accumulate wealth, and dragons are long lived. But what about the HOW and WHY? Dragon claws aren't really designed for subtle manipulation, like picking up and counting coins. And while I can understand the odd magic item or piece of jewelry being the remains of would-be slayers that found their way into the dragon's den, surely those dead adventurers weren't carrying hundreds (or thousands) of pounds of coin on them...they went seeking death with EMPTY sacks, not ones already bursting.

It seems clear to me that for a creature that doesn't mine, and doesn't manufacture (or mint) that the best explanation for the treasure hoard is that it is TRIBUTE...tribute paid by lesser beings, bribes (in a way), to prevent the dragon from destroying villages and consuming both citizens and livestock. Of course, dragons don't go on shopping sprees, so the tribute simply accumulates over time (the hoard grows larger and larger) but dragons are an intelligent species...even the stupidest having an intelligence of 8 or they must have a reason for wanting and accepting such offerings:
  1. Being an intelligent species, they understand the value of treasure and the size of their hoard is a matter of prestige and pride. A larger hoard symbolizes more power, thus a "better," stronger, smarter dragon. Dragons don't appear to have a society (though they might, just one invisible to the average human) but hoard comparisons could be used to determine rank and status among their own kind.
  2. Size and composition of hoard would certainly be a factor in determining the suitability of a mate. D&D dragons are found in mated pairs, suggesting a form of monogamy or "mating for life." Not only does a dragon's hoard describe a better (more powerful) partner, but the joining of two dragons requires one to leave its hoard behind (they have no way to transport it!), so the dominant of the two must have a hoard of sufficient size for the both of them.
  3. Dragons, as stated, need to eat...a lot!...even though (like reptiles) they can experience long periods of dormancy. While human-sized prey is hardly a snack for any size dragon (and a halfling isn't even a mouthful), a party of humans, plus their mounts and pack animals, might prove enough food that they can go without leaving their lair (thus conserving energy) for a longer period of time. A treasure hoard is thus an enticement for "intelligent" (i.e. foolhardy) prey to come to them
  4. Finally, D&D dragons are portrayed as "cowardly" because of the rules for subduing dragons; however, this just shows their intelligence and sense of self-preservation. While dragons are loathe to relinquish any of their treasure (because a diminished hoard size is detrimental to the motives already listed) bribing powerful individuals is better than dying. Should a party prove too strong for an individual dragon, the hoard can be used to "buy off" the invaders. Being an intelligent being with a lifespan measured in centuries, dragons can afford to take the "long view;" better for a young dragon to seek greener pastures, establishing a new lair and beginning (again) the acquisition of tribute. Thus, the hoard also represents a bit of a "safety net," though some particularly old and curmudgeonly dragons might find it worth dying for ('I ain't moving!').
And so we have yet another reason that monsters will have a desire to accumulate treasure: living in wilderness areas inhabited by dragons, such creatures (goblins, trolls, ogres, etc.) will need all the money they can mine, borrow, or steal just to keep the dragons from devouring their villages. Human towns...what with their curtain walls and towers, armored knights and wizards...are too dangerous (or too much of a pain in the ass) for the average dragon to bother with. But out in the the swamps or mountains or jungle or arctic regions...a dragon can get by, hunting large game and reaping the rewards of subservient, fearful lesser beings who also make their homes far from the murderous humans and their allies.

Makes perfect sense to me.
; )


  1. Jeebs.

    Haven't you ever own anything that was utterly useless that gave you great joy?

    1. Um...

      Yes. BUT when it comes to, say, a particular collection of "useless" items, well, that's MY particular weirdness. And other folks have their own...different...collecting weirdness.

      When talking about a SPECIES with a penchant for collecting a *specific* thing (in this case, treasure) that's not a unique weirdness. That's a societal trait. I mean, considering a sentient species, not just beavers building a dam or birds building a nest.

      No? I admit that *I* am insane in a particular way, but is EVERY dragon insane in a very specific way?

      And (perhaps) you'd say "So make all your dragons different, you dolt!"

      But I don't want dragons without treasure hoards. Dragons without treasure hoards are like...I don't without orgasms? Something.

  2. Fafnir and Beowulf's dragon both took over existing treasure hoards. Fafnir was a dwarf who transformed into a dragon to protect the treasure that already had been collected from the Norse gods (Otter's Ransom). Beowulf's dragon was described as having inhabited the grave of a buried king to take the grave goods buried with that king.

    Grave goods and divine compensation. Starter sets for dragons!

    1. Fafnir feels more like “divine punishment” to me, and I’ve seen the idea of greed creating dragons elsewhere (probably taken from the sagas). Doesn’t C.S. Lewis do that in “Dawn Treader?”

      However, entertaining as that is, I don’t think it works all that well with D&D’s premise…otherwise, dragonhood could be the assumed end result of the PCs’ careers!
      ; )

    2. The last time I read the Narnia books was 14 years ago, when my older boy was a newborn. But I think Eustace became a dragon for a while.

      And while I think 3E had a PrC for sorcerers to become dragons, the transformation wasn't my point. It was the idea that dragons start out by murder-hoboing. Then they collect tribute and the spoils of would be dragon slayers.

  3. A very enjoyable post! Regarding humanoids, in a setting such as Greyhawk there are whole kingdoms (or the failed remains of such) where evil holds sway. Iuz and the Pomarj to name just a couple examples. I assumed that the humanoid bands were raiders... either on chevauchee or perhaps mere brigands... and would accumulate the loot and take it back to evil lands to spend it there. Or else tithe it to the wicked lords of the Temple if you're doing T1-4.

    1. There is no Mordor in my game world...though if there was, it would probably be Idaho.
      ; )

  4. In Barbara Hambly's Dragonsbane novels, gold sings to dragons, making beautiful music only their presence brings out and only they can hear. Gold owned by dragons still bears a trace of this, which is why people kill each other over it. I've always rather liked that idea.

    Quite sensibly, dragonslaying in that book involves harpoons and a lot of luck, because magic-using acid-spitting potentially-flying forty-foot tanks with spiked tails tend to be dangerous.

    It's notable that the largest pterosaurs (which seem to have flown) weighed about a thousand pounds and had wingspans around 40 feet. I believe some are suspected to have had things like air bladders in their wings to make them even more bouyant.

    Of course, dragons also have the advantage that they're magical. This allows a certain level of cheating. Role Aids dragons fly purely through their own magic and belief, and so wingless ones can fly, though not well, and a dragon with a crisis of confidence may not be able to.

    1. Yeah, I suppose many (most?) would simply go the route of "they're magic" and leave it at that. Perhaps treasure is a waste product of dragons, something excreted from their body (though only when found "in the wild;" dragons held in captivity give no treasure). I mean...sure...folks can do whatever they want.

      Pushing the envelope of "reality," though, is a heady drug.
      ; )

      RE: wingless dragons

      You'll note I didn't put the gold dragons up there. Despite a very fast flying speed (compared to other dragons) the 1E MM illustration appears to show them as wingless (the 2E MM DEFINITELY portrays golds as wingless). In appearance, temperament, and magical ability golds have always struck me as being based more on Eastern (i.e. Chinese) folklore than Western...they are considered sacred and lucky rather than destructive and Satanic.

      As such, I'm far more inclined to assign gold dragons the characteristics of a spiritual (spirit) avatar than a material beast.